Beloved Poet and Philosopher Kahlil Gibran on the Seeming Self vs. the Authentic Self and the Liberating Madness of Casting Our Masks Aside
“I have found both freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us.”
By Maria Popova
In 1918, the great Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) published a collection of parables and poems titled The Madman (public library | free ebook), which endures as a trove of timeless beauty and wisdom on such core human concerns as identity and belonging, love and faith, sorrow and happiness.
Nowhere does Gibran’s genius shine more luminously than in his exploration of identity and the masks behind which we hide our innermost selves from others — and even from ourselves; the authentic, vulnerable self that he so beautifully describes as “a human chaos, a nebula of confused elements,” “a green seed of unfulfilled passion, a mad tempest that seeketh neither east nor west, a bewildered fragment from a burnt planet.”
Half a century before Hannah Arendt’s magnificent meditation on being vs. appearing and our impulse for self-display, Gibran explores the interplay between our seeming selves and our being selves:
My friend, I am not what I seem. Seeming is but a garment I wear — a care-woven garment that protects me from thy questionings and thee from my negligence. The “I” in me, my friend, dwells in the house of silence, and therein it shall remain for ever more, unperceived, unapproachable.
The “friend” Gibran addresses is the idealized self, the self we present to the world, the aspirational self of who we would like to be rather than who we are — a self that invariably obscures our incompleteness and imperfection, which are the wellspring of our richest humanity. Gibran writes:
My friend, thou art good and cautious and wise; nay, thou art perfect — and I, too, speak with thee wisely and cautiously. And yet I am mad. But I mask my madness. I would be mad alone. My friend, thou art not my friend, but how shall I make thee understand? My path is not thy path, yet together we walk, hand in hand.
In another piece in the book, which calls to mind Tom Stoppard’s supreme definition of love as “the mask slipped from the face,” Gibran serenades the liberating madness of casting our masks aside:
You ask me how I became a madman. It happened thus: One day, long before many gods were born, I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen, — the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives, — I ran maskless through the crowded streets shouting, “Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves.”
Men and women laughed at me and some ran to their houses in fear of me.
And when I reached the market place, a youth standing on a house-top cried, “He is a madman.” I looked up to behold him; the sun kissed my own naked face for the first time. For the first time the sun kissed my own naked face and my soul was inflamed with love for the sun, and I wanted my masks no more. And as if in a trance I cried, “Blessed, blessed are the thieves who stole my masks.”
Thus I became a madman.
And I have found both freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us.
But let me not be too proud of my safety. Even a Thief in a jail is safe from another thief.
The Madman is a revelatory read in its totality and the source of Gibran’s enduring wisdom on the absurdity of our self-righteousness. Complement this particular fragment with Alan Watts (who shares a birthday with Gibran thirty-two years apart) on becoming what you really are, Amin Maalouf on the genes of the soul, and Aldous Huxley on who we are.
Published January 6, 2016